My eldest child was just 12 weeks old when I went back to work.
I spent half the week plying my trade as a journalist, and four nights behind the bar of a nearby pub. It added up to pretty much full-time employment.
A few years later, I gave birth to our daughter. She, too, was just three months old when we dropped her off at nursery for the first time. (Our son, by now, was in his first year of school.)
Personally, I would have loved to spend more time at home with both of them, but the brutal truth was that we couldn’t afford it.
Back then, statutory maternity pay lasted just 18 weeks. There was no paid paternity leave. And my husband (also a journalist) and I had a hefty mortgage to pay with an interest rate of around 12%. (Yes, this was some time ago – 1993, to be precise.)
Those who work because they can’t afford not to certainly shouldn’t be made to feel guilty; they need support, not criticism.
So the latest survey into British social attitudes by the National Centre for Social Research left me fuming when I read that just 7% of Brits think it’s ok for mothers of under-fives to take full-time jobs outside the home – an increase of 2% since 2012. Part-time work is acceptable according to 38% of respondents.
As women, we’re told we can have it all. That we have choices. That if we want to work our way up the career ladder, leaving less competent mortals trailing in our wakes and paying to off-load domestic duties, that’s absolutely fine. It’s even ok for our husbands or partners to stay home and care for the kids, if that’s what works for us.
They seem a little more advanced in New Zealand, where the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, the world’s youngest female leader, became just the second woman in history to give birth while an elected head of state. She’ll also become the first elected leader ever to take maternity leave.
She’ll have help with childcare from the baby’s father, Clarke Gayford, her partner of four years.
Sadly, in the UK, it seems attitudes haven’t really changed; most people still believe a mother’s place is at home with the little ones. It’s not much different once children reach school age, either; the survey says 2% of respondents still feel mum should stay home, and only 27% think full-time employment is the best option.
But the truth is that the phrase ‘stay-at-home mum’ conjures up a certain image of someone who doesn’t really exist.
Are you picturing a smiling, relaxed woman who spends her day alternating between cooking delicious and nutritious meals the whole family will enjoy, playing with her small children, and whisking through the chores when they obligingly take their morning and afternoon naps?
Forget it. My friends say the reality is very different. Time gets sucked up into the vacuum along with the crumbs from the carpet; if they’re lucky, there’s time to wave a duster ineffectually at the furniture in between nappy changes and dealing with temper tantrums. (I’m assuming they mean their children’s, not their own.)
By the evening, they’d sell their souls for half an hour with a cuppa, some mindless television, and no small people demanding attention. They’ve got just enough energy to boil some pasta and heat up a ready-made sauce.
Ok, I’m exaggerating. A bit. But the point is, being a stay-at-home mum isn’t easy. Those who choose it are to be saluted, but those who don’t shouldn’t be demonised. I might have wished for more time at home with my own kids, but I also know I’d have been miserable with nothing else.
For others, having financial independence or regular adult company is important. And those who work because they can’t afford not to certainly shouldn’t be made to feel guilty; they need support, not criticism.
Ultimately, we all do what whatever we need to. We find a way we can live with, even if it’s not perfect, and the last thing any of us needs is the feeling we are being judged for our choices.
Society doesn’t make it easy for mothers stay at home – not financially, not in terms of resources, and certainly not when it comes to the attitudes of others. Because in spite of the figures reported above, the survey also found that most respondents also disagreed with the traditional view of women as homemakers and men as breadwinners – 72%, in fact.
I’ve seen it for myself, when friends are asked by new acquaintances: “And what do you do?” Paid employment outside the home prompts interest, while replying “I stay at home and look after the kids” results in surprised, even puzzled expressions. While she might be the social ideal, it seems a ‘proper’ job is still regarded more highly.
Ultimately, we all do what whatever we need to. We find a way we can live with, even if it’s not perfect, and the last thing any of us needs is the feeling we are being judged for our choices. Bringing up our children is important, but so is earning enough money to provide food, clothing and shelter.
Does it really matter who does what? Does it feel good to judge those who don’t conform to our view of the way the world should be? Going out to work while our children are small doesn’t mean we don’t care about them; it means we do.